The Silver Lining in the Silver Tsunami

1 – Introduction
50 50We have all heard about the “silver tsunami” poised to overtake the world. The media is prolific with stories about our aging populations and the “problems” we will face. I put “problems” in quotes because most of us already understand that a problem is usually only a problem in how it is viewed.

It may not be obvious, but every problem that ever existed also comes with embedded opportunities. Finding those opportunities is not always easy, and is often made more difficult by how we immerse ourselves in the problem.

I would like to use this blog post to point to the vast opportunities that await us as individuals and as a society, due to our changing demographics

2 – Quantifying the upcoming demographic shifts
We are told that the 100 years between 1960 and 2060 represent the most dramatic demographic shifts the world has ever seen. Let’s get a clearer picture of statement.

Using data compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population forecast report, I arbitrarily established age bands of 15 years. Band 1 represents those between 0 and 15 years. Band 2 represents those from 15 to 30 years, and so on.

Then I compared the projected 2050 projection for the age band against its 2010 figures to determine how much each age segment will be growing between now and 2050. The results of this analysis appear in the bar chart in the diagram below.

Growth Chart

Figure 1- Population segment growth from 2010 to 2050

Although there will be an increase in numbers for every age band, the two largest growing age bands are those between 60 and 75 years old (growth of 66%) and the 75 and over age band, which will grow a whopping 158% during these years. This 158% increase outweighs all the other groups and more than compensates for any other rise which may or may not be happening within this group of citizens. By 2060, we will hit the turning point where the number of Americans over 60 years old will equal or out number those under 20 years old.

3 – The Media Perspective
Learning about the aging of America through the media outlets will give one a sense of impending doom, or an urgent call to action to prevent a miriad of social disasters. Maybe it is just me, but it seems to be presented as something that threatens our future.

I am not suggesting that there aren’t issues that need our attention as individuals and as a society. But the mindset with which we approach these matters with will determine the quality and innovation of the solutions that will ultimately evolve to address them. The solutions that rise out of addressing a threat to our future will be very different from the solutions that rise out of seeing the opportunities that these changes will offer us. Let’s take a brief look at a few of the commonly sited “warnings” related to the demographic wave.

a) HealthcareThe prominent issues highlighted in the media relate to healthcare concerns. At present, about 18% of the US GDP is going to medical care. And this is expected to steadily increase beyond 2040. However closer examination (see figure 2) shows that many factors are controlling this rise – not just our aging population.

Figure 2- Components of health care costs

Figure 2- Components of health care costs

One real concern I see in this area is the shortage of medical and paramedical personnel. And this has been publicized quite a bit in the media. I don’t mean to be glib, but it seems that the announcement itself helps to move toward partial resolution. How? What do you think the present wave of college students will hear in that announcement? They will see a reliable income and a chance to make a difference. That should attract a lot of college students

b) Social Security: Social Security is another great concern when looking at our changing demographics. Indeed all publicly funded pay-as-you-go pension systems will be challenged as the older generation finds its way into history. This is because the number of beneficiaries in the system will increase while the number of contributors will decline. However, the world is now watching the apparently successful Social Security experiments being done in Germany and Sweden. These contries have re-structured their public pension system so that it is contribution-centric, instead of benefit-centric. Actual pension amounts are also dependent on the ratio of workers to retirees. They could provide directions for other countries, including America, on how to resolve this type of problem.

c) General Economics:  The media forecasts that as a larger portion of the population retires, a smaller workforce remains for the country’s production. To me, this sounds like a great opportunity to learn to work smarter and evolve toward efficient and sustainable production. After all, wasn’t it the boomers that first used the phrase “Doing more with less”? This would be the perfect time to progress automation and technological innovation (such as robotics) without causing undue unemployment.

4 – A walk on the bright side

hand in hand

Let’s use a different mindset to explore what is about to happen to American demographics. With this silver tsunami, our society has a golden opportunity to rejuvenate, modernize, renovate and refresh many of its operating concepts. Just as large corporations go through downsizing efforts, much of the status quo thinking will have to be challenged to produce the concepts and structures that will support older citizens as well as fuel our children’s futures. The fundamental elements of social structures that will please America’s aging population will also better serve future generations.

To those of us with the right mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit, the opportunities within the new landscape will make America look like a Disneyland. Consider the following questions for some low-hanging fruit for innovation:

  • How badly do you think that the orthopedic devices and surgeons will suffer due to our aging population?
  • Will profits from the testosterone and ED medication markets dwindle?
  • What about dating services catering to the 60+ crowd of widows, widowers, and divorcees?
  • What sort of innovation do you think the “Aging in Place” initiatives will spark? The desire to have elders living independently in their own homes will bring a passion for innovation that will touch our political, cultural and technological systems and structures.  This is already happening. (Google “Aging-in-place” to read more.)

According to the US Census Bureau and media sources, the upcoming generation of retirees will be the healthiest, longest lived, best educated, and most affluent in history. The media currently pictures lonely, frail, scared, and dependent elderly people that drain the life out of our national resources. But older Americans no longer see the permanent vacation of retirement. Instead, they see an active and engaged phase of life that includes work and public service. Just the expectation of this sort of life promotes the possibilities for it. The old ideas of retirement need to be retired.

5 – Embracing a brave new world
Although these demographic shifts will challenge us, it should raise the bar on everything we are doing. The boomers themselves, in cooperation with the younger crowd, will apply their wisdom and creativity to resolve the very problems that are being created. Challenging the status quo is old hat for boomers. Each of the past 6 decades has been marked by their influence.

It is only our view and our labels which will hold back the innovation. It is time for the boomer generation to make its final mark in history over the next 40 years. There will be challenges.No one escapes life without them. But meeting challenges is what life is about.

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